Iraq: What Do Human Rights Look Like?


by Michele Naar-Obed

In Suleimaniya, the absence of explosions and gunshots is striking for those of us who worked in Baghdad. Instead, one hears the sounds of children going to school, markets bustling with people and buses running regularly. Families picnic in the large city park. The Muslim call to prayer reverberates from Mosques. Christians attend the Chaldean Church and the sound of Mass spoken in Kurdish and Arabic is fascinating.

These are the sights and sounds of basic human rights: the right to live without fear of violence, the right to food, shelter, health care, education, the right to practice one’s religion and the right to recreation. On the surface life seems to move in a good direction, functioning beyond basic survival instincts. But upon digging deeper, one finds the human rights situation operating short of optimal.

A major reshuffling of the population presents challenges to Kurdish society. Scores of Arab Iraqis are fleeing into the Kurdish region, straining Kurdistan’s basic infrastructure. Internally displaced persons, Kurdish and Arab, compete for diminishing resources. The Kurds seem reluctantly willing to accommodate the influx but make it clear that Arabs are not welcome to stay. Arabs are not allowed to buy homes or land in Kurdistan.

Underlying these attitudes are deep-seated feelings of resentment that many Kurds harbor towards Arabs because of the genocide Saddam Hussein and his henchmen committed against them. Their human rights were tragically violated and they felt the world was silent during the slaughter. This underlying trauma taints their interactions as they now find themselves in positions of deciding to grant or deny basic human rights to Arabs – a vicious cycle that some good folks in Kurdistan are trying to break.

Some religious leaders are looking at the reconciliation process in post-Apartheid South Africa as a potentially viable model for Kurdistan. Human rights workers tell us that desire for nonviolence training exists in the region, but they broach the topic of reconciliation with trepidation. Still, they sense a willingness to move forward.

The potential to break the chains of violence teeters precariously as the threats of war hover over the region. Turkey threatens attacks inside the Kurdish borders. The U.S. continues to occupy Iraq and now threatens Iran. Syria sides with Turkey. Turkey sides with Iran. The U.S. backs Israel. Any one of these alliances and enmities can tip the balance towards injustice. A push of a button could sweep away any chance for human rights to be fully realized.

But, the universal torchlight still burns within the human spirit, and the shadows have not overcome the Light. Not yet.